NHL draft 2020 primer: Answering the 20 biggest last-minute questions

ByESPN staff ESPN logo
Monday, October 5, 2020

Believe it or not, the 2020 NHL draft is finally here. After being delayed and rescheduled from June, all 217 picks over seven rounds will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, starting with the New York Rangers atop the board.

Whether you are a draft enthusiast who has followed this talented class all year or you are just checking in for the first time, perhaps a bit sidetracked by the Stanley Cup playoffs in the bubble, we have everything you need to get up to speed when the clock starts ticking on the first overall pick.

Our team of Chris Peters, Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski answer 20 lingering questions about the prospect class, team needs, potential players on the move in draft-day trades, bold predictions and more. Who is the top prospect? What are the teams to watch? Which player is most likely to be over- or underdrafted? We dig into all that and more.

Additionally, be sure to check out the rest of our pre-draft content to be as prepared as the 31 NHL teams when the draft begins on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET).

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What defines the 2020 draft class?

Chris Peters, NHL draft and prospects analyst: The quality of the very top of this class will define it, as the top 10 is pretty loaded. There are some real exceptional talents in this group, many of whom have potential to be big-time stars in the NHL. It's a very good year to be in the lottery.

Who is the top prospect, and what makes him special?

Peters: Alexis Lafreniere, a left winger out of Rimouski in the QMJHL, is the top prospect and has been for this class for essentially three years running. He brings size, strength and physicality, along with elite-level skill and hockey sense. His junior career has been among the most decorated of any player in recent memory, as he is only the second player in history to be named the CHL's Player of the Year twice in a row. The other one: Sidney Crosby. On top of that, Lafreniere led Canada to gold in an MVP performance at the World Junior Championship and looks to be as ready as any player in recent memory to step into the NHL and make an immediate impact.

Could the New York Rangers take anyone other than Lafreniere at No. 1?

Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Rangers' biggest organizational need is at center, and Lafreniere is not a center. Theoretically, that could make New York question the pick and perhaps opt for Quinton Byfield, the top-rated center and No. 2 overall prospect. But it's not likely. Byfield, who is nearly a year younger than Lafreniere, is more of a project, while Lafreniere is ready to contribute right away. In fact, 60 points in a regular 82-game season would be within reach right out of the gate. New York could field trade calls too, but it will take an ante too big for most teams' appetite.

The Rangers selecting Lafreniere is a safe bet. The real question comes at No. 2, when the Los Angeles Kings will have to choose between Byfield of the OHL's Sudbury and winger Tim Stutzle of Germany's Mannheim.

How many prospects are NHL-ready out of the gate?

Peters: Realistically, Lafreniere is the only player that I think is a lock to play NHL games next season, whenever that may start. That said, there's a chance Byfield, Stutzle, Marco Rossi (OHL) and even Anton Lundell (Finland) could also make the transition immediately if they have a strong enough camp. It's all going to depend on the situation their teams are in and what the NHL season looks like.

The Ottawa Senators have two top-five picks, a third first-rounder at the tail end of Day 1 and four second-rounders. How do they walk away happy?

Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: The Senators are in a fascinating position but one that's a bit out of their control. They're going to take either Byfield or Stutzle at No. 3, depending on which player the Kings take at No. 2. Then the Red Wings will determine what they do with that No. 5 pick. "We have to be ready for a number of different things, including a scenario where somebody wants to move up and take No. 5 as well," Ottawa's top scout Trent Mann said.

I think happiness for the Senators looks like this: They get their foundational center at No. 3 and select U.S. National Team Development Program defenseman Jake Sanderson, OHL defenseman Jamie Drysdale, Swedish winger Lucas Raymond or Russian goalie Yaroslav Askarov at No. 5. Then use one of those second-rounders as a sweetener to move that No. 28 pick up the board a bit. Will they utilize their considerable cap space as the third team in three-way deals, retaining salary on a high-priced player in exchange for additional picks? Or are they a little too thrifty to take on additional payroll just to "buy" picks?

Which team was the biggest loser of the lottery process, and can it still 'win' at the draft?

Kaplan: Perhaps no team got burned by the NHL's revised lottery rules quite like the Detroit Red Wings. In his first year running the Detroit franchise, GM Steve Yzerman says he didn't go into tank mode, but the Red Wings had 23 fewer points than any other team. Detroit only had an 18.5% chance of landing the top pick, but it fell all the way to No. 4.

Yzerman was known for his astute late drafting while building the Tampa Bay roster, and he spun the situation optimistically. "We can sit here and feel sorry for ourselves, that doesn't matter," Yzerman said. "And you know what, maybe we will get lucky. Colorado lost the lottery a couple years ago and ended up at the fourth spot and got Cale Makar, a player that definitely moves the needle. We'll get our lucky breaks along the way, and maybe this will be one of them in an odd-looking way."

One year after landing Jack Hughes at the top pick, the New Jersey Devils now have three first-rounders in 2020. Could this draft be the final rebuild push?

Wyshynski: The Devils are in their second rebuild in five seasons, which is quite a trick. "We are where we're at. We can use [help] in a lot of different positions," general manager Tom Fitzgerald told ESPN. While the draft isn't going to strap a rocket to their backs on the way to contention, it's obviously going to flesh out their farm system. Their approach to these picks is to have a handful of players they rate highly, and then make a determination what to do with that pick. "We'll probably cluster guys to make a move up or even move back, if we're not comfortable with who we're going to get in that cluster," Fitzgerald said.

The most interesting cluster is at No. 7 overall, where the Devils could choose from Jake Sanderson, Jamie Drysdale, Lucas Raymond and even Yaroslav Askarov, despite the breakout season from young goalie Mackenzie Blackwood.

What is your favorite prospect-to-player comp?

Peters: The one that I've put a fair amount of stock into is Marco Rossi to Brayden Point. Rossi is an undersized center (5-foot-9) out of Ottawa in the OHL, but he has tremendous skill and tenacity. His defensive game isn't at the level of Point's, but there are a lot of similar attributes in a similar physical package. Rossi's size should not hold him back from becoming a high-end NHL player.

What is the best prospect-to-team fit?

Peters: Quinton Byfield and the Los Angeles Kings make for a tremendous fit. He has star quality, and even though this team has a lot of center prospects, it doesn't have one with Byfield's upside. I can see him being the heir to Anze Kopitar as the team's top pivot, with a perfect understudy scenario for the foreseeable future. As enticing and skilled as Stutzle is, I think Byfield just fits in there perfectly.

What's the biggest toss-up between two closely ranked prospects in the class?

Peters: Lately, it seems that the argument between the top two defensemen is the biggest toss-up. Jake Sanderson and Jamie Drysdale are far and away the top two blueliners, but both of them are different enough that who goes first is likely to come down to a team's value system. Sanderson, No. 8 on my board, has two-way skills but is much more gifted defensively. Drysdale, No. 9 in my rankings, is the more dynamic offensive talent. Both are elite skaters, with Sanderson being exceptionally quick and Drysdale having a more deceptive and elusive skating style. I'm fascinated to see which one goes first -- and how early.

What team's approach to the draft will be most interesting?

Kaplan: The Arizona Coyotes are in a fascinating position. They qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but it was apparent in their five-game series loss to the Avalanche in the first round that they still have plenty of holes in the roster. They have a new GM in Bill Armstrong, who was hired because of his plan to build this team back up through the draft.

Only two problems. First, Armstrong isn't allowed to participate in the Coyotes' draft room this year, per an agreement with his former employer, the Blues. Second, Arizona doesn't pick until the fourth round this year. It is also without its 2021 first- and third-round picks. Can the Coyotes climb back into the first three rounds this year? And because of the unusual circumstances, are they willing to take risks with their late-rounders?

Which team lacking a first-rounder will miss it the most?

Wyshynski: Well, the Coyotes certainly fit here. But of the six teams not currently picking on Day 1, I'll choose the New York Islanders. Obviously you have to give to get, and getting Jean-Gabriel Pageau was a coup for GM Lou Lamoriello. He had eight goals and three assists in the postseason for New York, as the Isles made the conference final. They also signed him to a six-year, $30 million extension.

Still, the Islanders add $5 million to their cap next season and have just over $8 million in space with at least three players needing new deals, including star forward Mathew Barzal. The Islanders have several veterans with cap hits who could be shipped out to help create more space, but without that first- or even a second-rounder as a sweetener to facilitate a trade, it becomes a bit more challenging. Then again, this is Lou we're talking about. He has always had a talent for making problematic contracts disappear.

Who will be overdrafted based on what you've seen?

Peters: It's looking more and more like Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL) center Ridly Greig will be a first-round pick. He's a talented forward, and I have him at No. 33 on my board, but the hallmarks of his game are more in the energy and checking departments. His skill level is pretty solid, but I think there are reasonable concerns about his offensive prowess. Sure, it's fair for him to be a first-rounder -- it's just not as early as I would take him.

Which prospect might fall further than he should?

Peters: I'll be watching Rodion Amirov, a left wing out of Russia. I think he's one of the most skilled forwards in this draft, but there remains some concern about drafting Russian players in the lottery range because they can sign longer-term contracts in the KHL. In those cases, you're not sure when you'll see them. But Amirov is a difference-maker and should be very much in the top-15 mix (No. 13 in my rankings). If he falls much further than that, it will be too far.

Which Day 1 prospect has the biggest range of opinions?

Peters: Hendrix Lapierre, a center from Chicoutimi in the QMJHL. He came into this past season with a lot of draft hype, but injuries kept him out of the lineup enough where he wasn't able to make good on some of those early-season projections. His Hlinka-Gretzky Cup performance left a lasting impression, but there have been plenty of players who dominated at that tournament and didn't maintain that level.

If teams have any concerns about his health going forward, they may not list him at all. But teams that believe what he did as a QMJHL rookie two seasons ago and in brief stints last season are enough, he could still be a first-round pick. For what it's worth, I have him ranked No. 25 overall.

Is there a team to watch for trading up or down in Round 1?

Kaplan: Keep an eye on the Toronto Maple Leafs with the No. 15 pick. The Maple Leafs were initially missing their first-round pick this year (given to Carolina for taking on Patrick Marleau's contract) but recouped one back from Pittsburgh in the Kasperi Kapanen trade. GM Kyle Dubas has already started leaving breadcrumbs about potential movement, too. The Leafs have 11 picks in the 2020 draft, though more than half of them are in the sixth and seventh rounds.

"We're open, certainly, to keeping the [first-round] pick," Dubas told reporters in August. "But I think the spot that we're at with our team right now, we're also open probably to moving it if the right deal came along for someone that could help us now."

Who is an NHL player you're watching on the trade block on draft night?

Wyshynski: Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Yes, I know he has publicly stated that he wants to remain in Vegas. But he also makes $7 million against the salary cap for a team that just signed Robin Lehner to a deal that pays him $5 million annually over the next five seasons, on top of needing cap space to improve the roster after their conference finals loss -- perhaps in order to take a run at a free-agent defenseman.

Will a team aggressively go after him rather than dabble in the dark arts of the crowded goalie unrestricted free-agent market? For the Knights to move Fleury's salary, a third team will likely have to take on part of it for the next two seasons, meaning Vegas might ante up its first-rounder at No. 29 to facilitate a deal. Hence, the draft-day intrigue.

Here are some other trade candidates to keep an eye on over the course of the draft.

Speaking of goalies, what are the chances one goes in the top 10?

Peters: I'd give it a 90% chance that Yaroslav Askarov goes in the top 10. Several of the teams in the pick Nos. 4-10 range have to at least consider taking the top goalie to enter the draft in some years.

I've been watching Askarov a lot for the past three seasons, and I can confidently say he's the best young goalie I've seen since I've been a prospect evaluator (No. 6 on my board). There's always a risk factor with goalies and their development, but I haven't seen one who is this far along at 18 years old. And that he's under contract in Russia (SKA St. Petersburg) for two more seasons would not scare me -- it's free development with the hope that he signs his first NHL deal upon the conclusion of his KHL pact.

My next-highest-ranked goaltender comes at No. 81 overall in Drew Commesso out of the U.S. National Team Development Program.

Who is your favorite Day 2 sleeper?

Peters: How about 6-foot-4, 235-pound behemoth Egor Sokolov of the Cape Breton Eagles in the QMJHL. He was passed over in the previous two drafts due to fitness concerns and a lack of foot speed, but his game has steadily improved. The left winger was a standout for Russia at the World Juniors and showcased potential to be a skilled power forward. With the right organization, he has a chance to be a really solid NHL player down the line. One of my favorite prospects in this class, I have him at No. 62 on my board.

To close, how about a bold prediction for the 2020 draft?

Kaplan: Whomever the Red Wings select at No. 4 actually becomes a Cale Makar, as Yzerman semi-prophesied, and that player wins the Calder Trophy before any of the three players picked ahead of him.

Peters: Quinton Byfield will have the kind of career that will make us wonder in hindsight whether he was actually the best player in this draft.

Wyshynski: Winger Patrik Laine remains with the Winnipeg Jets, but defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is no longer a Coyote when the draft concludes.

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